OCEANIA/PAPUA NEW GUINEA - Lay missionary expelled: “transversal warning” for the local Church



Rabaul – The media is buzzing today in Papua New Guinea following the expulsion of Doug Tennent, New Zealand citizen lay missionary who was acting as lawyer and administrator for the archdiocese of Rabaul. After spending 30 years in Papua and Solomon Islands, teaching law at the State University in Port Moresby, since 2014 Tennent was working for the Archbishop of Rabaul, Salesian Francesco Panfilo. Despite swift interventions on the part of the local Catholic Church in Papua and the Apostolic Nuntiature to suspend the order of expulsion and discuss presumed charges, the PNG immigration office executed the forced departure embarking Doug Tennent on Monday June 12 on a flight to New Zealand.
Fides spoke to Archbishop Panfilo about the event which involved him personally. “Doug Tennent received a decree of expulsion on the grounds that he was ‘involved in sensitive issues concerning land owners’. We know the meaning of these words: they refer to the native peoples in the area of West Pomio, in the territory of our archdiocese. In 2012 a group of land owners in that area stipulated an agreement with a Malay multinational, the Rimbunan Hijau, which grants land for the exploitation of timber and the production of palm oil. But the contract was not sufficiently examined. As the years passed the natives witnessed progressive deforesting and serious environmental devastation. Therefore, rightly concerned, they demanded fairer conditions and guarantees of protection for the area, and asked for my direct involvement in the matter, as Archbishop and a Catholic representative.”
Archbishop Panfilo did not step aside: “We examined the question and, thanks also to the competent assistance of Mr. Tennent, we started the process of requesting a re-negotiation of the contract”. Several motives were listed by the Archbishop: “The land rental agreement is clearly unfair towards the owners of the land; the rent conceded for the land is inadequate and what is more the multinational company for the past two years has been in arrears; coercive means were used to obtain the signatures of the land owners and consent for the area conceded; the local people were not properly informed; there is a serious problem of environmental devastation and lack of respect for certain sites considered sacred by the inhabitants; in six years there have been no visible changes in social and community services, no positive effects for the local community”.
In the meantime Pope Francis made public his document Laudato si’ and Archbishop Panfilo in 2015 issued a Pastoral Letter, acknowledging the principles of the Encyclical, and among other issues, he raises the question of West Pomio and commits himself officially to defending the rights and the lives of the native peoples and for the protection of the environment, recalling the principles of the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church.
“There are serious and good reasons for renegotiating the contract ”, Archbishop Panfilo affirmed. Now the slap in the face, the expulsion of Tennent. Clearly, as Fides sources learned, the multinational company, known to have good political connections, intended to send a signal of displeasure regarding the activity of the local Church and used pressure to obtain the dismissal of the Archbishop’s trusted assistant expert also in legal questions.
“The event has caused clamour and indignation in politics and in the media. Our request to the government is to immediately recall Tennent, whose assistance is important for the administration of our local Church. We hope the Forieng Ministry will intervene and reconsider the decision taken. We wait and hope. We are ready even to go to Court”, says the Archbishop who concludes: “Today June 14 is the beginning of the Novena in preparation for the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, patron of our Archdiocese. To Him we entrust this sad situation. Sacred Heart of Jesus, pray for us”.